Egg Foo Yuck
One woman's love of Chinese food had inauspicious beginnings.
Thursday, September 28, 2000
My sister worked as a waitress at the Ho-Ho Inn, a Chinese restaurant on Cass Street in Detroit. She sat a plate of Egg Foo Yung in front of 5-year-old me. I quickly renamed this dish "Egg Foo Yuck." Tears ran down my cheeks as I thought about eating it. The Chinese waiter, George, came in and looked at me. He took the Egg Foo Yuck and threw it in the garbage. He went to the freezer and got me one of those ice cream treats that Chinese restaurants serve, a coconut-flavored outer shell of ice cream around a mango core. My sister came in and glared at me. George said, "She ate everything, so I gave her an ice cream." I smiled sweetly at George. My love for the Chinese, if not for their food, began at that instant.
In 1979, when I was 15, I raised money with 21 other young people to visit the People''s Republic of China. I dreaded the culinary side of our trip and packed 100 Maalox tablets in my suitcase.
I didn''t like pork, China''s staple meat. I was suspicious of all seafood except shrimp. When a serving plate full of sweet-and-sour shrimp appeared on the table, I rudely took half. My tour-mates curbed this behavior by telling me the shrimp was really cat, rat or dog. I subsisted on rice and soup broth for two weeks. I cringe now when I think of wasting food in a country that still had a collective memory of famine.
At lunch on a commune outside Shanghai, our grandmotherly-looking tour guide asked if I would like some pork. "No, thank you, Ms. Woo-ching," I politely responded. She smiled and put a large spoonful on my plate. "Would you like some soup?" she asked. I politely refused again. She smiled and ladled some wonton soup into a bowl, which she placed in front of me. I, the "foreign devil," recognized a lost battle.
"I''ll try a little of everything," I said, and watched in horror as something hot, white and topped off with pork was placed in front of me. The white stuff was bean curd. I tried it and loved it.
In college my friends and I went to hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Chicago''s Chinatown where daily specials were written in Chinese on chalkboards. I was in third-year Japanese and could read characters, so I could order for us.
After graduation I worked for a translation company. Mok, our Chinese cleaning lady who spoke no English, invited me to celebrate Chinese New Year with her family. I went and smiled a lot during dinner, because her family didn''t speak English either. The courses were unending. I said "Xie-xie" (thank-you) many times. How could I have disliked Chinese food?
When I was 31, I bought a wok and a Chinese cookbook at a garage sale. The cookbook listed 40 different cooking techniques and said that this was "just an abbreviated list." I had to relearn how to chop vegetables. I tried several dishes, but my family has its favorites: Cantonese rice, egg drop soup, and stir-fried beef in oyster sauce.
I show my daughter China on the map and tell her, "Rice grows in South China where it''s hot and rainy in summer." I point to the north and say, "The Chinese grow wheat for noodles and dumplings here." I show her how to stir-fry bok choy and hope she''ll visit China one day without Maalox in her suitcase.